This final version of the 2016-2017 Matchups column will focus on Super Bowl prop bets in addition to matchup advantages on both sides, keying in on individual skill-position players and their outlooks for usage, production, and big-play potential. At 59.0 points, Falcons-Patriots is the highest-totaled Super Bowl in league history and will be played beneath NRG Stadium’s retractable roof, which is expected to be opened but could be shut if any inclement weather arrives. This should be a high-scoring game with lots of box-score goodness. Most of the prop-bet lines I refer to here are from BetOnline.com. Note that prop lines and prices are subject to constant change. I originally wrote most of this article on Monday and Tuesday, then had to rewrite almost everything on Thursday and Friday because so much was different.
Vegas Projected Score: Patriots 31, Falcons 28
The Falcons have scored an opening-drive touchdown in eight straight games, while this game’s total suggests 5.9 points should be scored every six minutes. Incredibly, New England has failed to score a single point in the first quarter of all six Super Bowls quarterbacked by Tom Brady, a statistic of which the Patriots are acutely aware. “Coach Belichick has reminded me about ten times in the last ten days,” Brady told reporters when asked about the scoreless first-quarter streak this week. Added OC Josh McDaniels, “It’s obviously something we’d like to change.”
Longtime Bill Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi stated this week that he anticipates the Patriots prioritizing grabbing an early lead and beating the typically fast-starting Falcons at their own game. “Belichick’s mandate all week: ‘Start Fast,’” Lombardi wrote in his Super Bowl preview for The Ringer. "Belichick's first quarter will be all about building a lead and learning Atlanta's plan." While such a strategy may be easier planned than accomplished, it would be a means of forcing Atlanta out of its comfort zone and creating positive game script for New England, allowing the Patriots to stay balanced. The Pats traditionally defer when they win the coin toss. If they win the opening flip in this game, I expect New England to take the ball.
One potential threat to the pace of Atlanta-New England is the possibility the Patriots attempt to slow down the game with a power-rushing attack and exploit the Falcons’ soft defensive front, which has yielded a combined 79-385-2 (4.87 YPC) rushing line to enemy running backs over its last five games and finished the season 29th in Football Outsiders’ run-defense DVOA. I don’t think a ball-control approach is likely to begin the game, but it could come into play if New England makes good on its expected start-fast plan. Falcons rookie MLB Deion Jones is an undersized inside ‘backer at 6-foot-1, 222 pounds, and someone the Patriots can specifically attack with power runs via LeGarrette Blount (6’1/241) behind hammerhead FB James Develin (6’3/259).
A run-first, ball-control plan of attack could theoretically limit the field time of Atlanta’s offense, which led the NFL in scoring by a whopping 71-point margin and has scored 30-plus points in 13-of-18 games (72%). Including the playoffs, Blount has scored a touchdown in 14-of-18 games (78%). While the price on Blount’s full-game touchdown prop is steep (-185), there is potential value in his first-half TD prop (+155). I love the over on Blount’s 14.5-carry prop (-105), a mark Blount has cleared in 10-of-14 games (71%) since Week 4. New England will have to maintain positive game script for Blount to deliver, of course. The Patriots have held strong as three-point favorites, suggesting there’s a good chance they will.
Ideally, I think the Pats will want to grab that early lead and impose their offensive will on Atlanta, which I do not believe is capable of stopping New England’s power rushing attack should the Patriots successfully turn this into a keep-the-lead game.
In a projected shootout involving two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks, Super Bowl prop bets specific to the passing game figure to be most popular. I think New England will open this game playing up-tempo offense in order to limit Atlanta’s defensive substitutions and wear down a defense that relies heavily on rookies in the middle of the field. Falcons slot corner Brian Poole (undrafted), MLB Deion Jones (second round), WLB De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round), and SS Keanu Neal (first round) are all first-year NFL players and play almost all of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. A ball-control approach is also doable with a high-volume, short-pass offense that not only moves the chains but keeps Atlanta’s high-octane offense off the field and Dan Quinn’s experience-lacking defense on it.
I think Brady can have a big game regardless of the Patriots’ offensive strategy, but his passing-game props are all very aggressively priced. A prop worth taking seriously is the under on Brady rushing for 2.5 yards (+100). Brady has run for 2.5 yards or fewer in 7-of-8 games since Week 11 and would benefit if the favored Patriots win and take Victory Formation kneeldowns, resulting in fourth-quarter rushing-yard losses. My good friend Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis has been a big proponent of the over on Brady completing 24.5 passes, a mark Brady has cleared in three straight Super Bowls and four of the last five. Unfortunately, the completions prop moved up to 26.5 (-130) late in the week after sharp bettors jumped all over it.
Dion Lewis and James White
While Dion Lewis paid major DFS dividends in a three-touchdown Divisional Round, he also fumbled twice – losing one – and played a significantly reduced role in New England’s AFC Championship win over Pittsburgh. Blount-friendly game flow may have been at least partially to blame after the Patriots built a convincing third-quarter lead, but it remains concerning that Lewis logged a season-low 23% snap rate and a five-game low in touches (8) while seeing a decidedly smaller workload than Blount (41%, 17 touches) and playing less than James White (38%, 4 touches). Readers of the season-long Matchups column are well aware by now that Atlanta has been gashed by receiving backs, a matchup edge both Lewis and White are theoretically capable of exploiting.
Unfortunately, Lewis has drawn three passing-game targets or fewer in five of the last six games and has finished below ten receiving yards five times during that stretch. White has touched the ball seven times or fewer in 12 straight games, but he has been far more active than Lewis as a receiver, running more pass routes than Lewis in all but one game this season. Perhaps I am being too risk averse when it comes to Lewis, but I would rather take overs on receiving props concerning White at this point. White’s props I am intrigued by include the length of his first reception topping 7 ½ yards (+105) and White finishing with more than 28 ½ yards from scrimmage (-140).
Regardless of whether the Patriots attack Atlanta with a ball-control or no-huddle, pass-first approach, Julian Edelman is set up beautifully for box-score production as the uncontested focal point of a Brady-quarterbacked passing game facing a clearly-inferior defense. Were top CB Desmond Trufant (pectoral, I.R.) healthy, the Falcons almost certainly would have assigned Trufant to chase Edelman into the slot. Instead, RCB Robert Alford chased Seahawks slot man Doug Baldwin (5-80-1) in the Divisional Round and now figures to do the same to Edelman, who runs nearly 60% of his routes inside. Pro Football Focus charged Alford with nine touchdown passes allowed this season – second most in the NFL – including four over Atlanta’s last five games. Unfortunately, Edelman’s Super Bowl props are set aggressively enough that I’m not sure any offer much value. Most reasonable looks to be the over on Edelman catching 7.5 passes (-125), a feat Edelman has accomplished in three straight games and 6-of-9 games (67%) since Week 10. Where it is being offered – seemingly only at Las Vegas books -- I am interested in Edelman’s YES or NO rushing-attempt prop (EVEN). Edelman has 14 rushing attempts in 18 games and four rushing attempts over his last six playoff games. He gets one rushing attempt, you win.
I don’t think it’s point-chasey to say Chris Hogan emerged as a featured player in the Patriots’ passing game this January. Even before his 9-180-2 eruption against the Steelers, Hogan was clearly a bigger part of New England’s Divisional Round game plan versus Houston, piling up 95 yards on repeated vertical strikes before leaving with a third-quarter thigh injury. Hogan returned to log 90% of the Pats’ AFC title game snaps while bypassing Edelman (20) for the team lead in 20-plus-yard targets (23) and torturing Steelers DBs Artie Burns, William Gay, and Mike Mitchell for monster gains. The 2016 Falcons allowed the NFL’s tenth most completions of 20-plus yards (53) and have given up eight more in two playoff games.
As Alford seems likely to travel with Edelman, Hogan should draw frequent single coverage against inferior Falcons CBs Jalen Collins and Brian Poole. It’s hard to feel entirely comfortable with Hogan because his regular season was so nondescript, but his matchup and recent usage are promising for a big Super Bowl, where I think Hogan is a deep sleeper for game MVP. Two Hogan props stand out. The first is over 59.5 receiving yards (-120), a mark six different wide receivers have topped against the Falcons over Atlanta’s last three games. Second is a long catch of over 24.5 yards (-115). Through two playoff games, Hogan has drawn a team-high six targets of 20-plus yards, catching all six. Because deep targets to Hogan have been such efficient plays, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots suddenly abandoning them. And it's also hard to imagine the Falcons’ leaky secondary stopping them.
Stephen Gostkowski and Matt Bryant are two of the NFL’s top placekickers, combining this season to go 61-of-69 (88.4%) on field-goal attempts and now set to benefit from NRG Stadium’s weather-negating environment. Where it is being offered, a prop bet on the over for 3.5 combined field goals made (+110) in Super Bowl 51 is fairly attractive after Gostkowski and Bryant combined to average 3.82 field goals made per game this regular season and have combined for 4.0 field goals made per game in the playoffs. While this game’s record-setting 59-point total suggests both offenses should successfully move the ball into scoring position, the over will probably need Atlanta’s leaky red-zone defense to show up in order to hit. Whereas the Pats allowed a touchdown on just 50% of opponents’ red-zone trips – tied for the NFL’s sixth-best mark – the 2016 Falcons allowed a touchdown on a league-high 72% of opponents’ trips inside the 20-yard line. Atlanta has the worst red-zone defense in the league.
Matt Ryan’s Super Bowl outlook is a somewhat tough nut to crack facing Bill Belichick with two weeks of preparation and a New England defense whose points-allowed metrics are strong but whose 2016 strength of schedule was almost comically weak, particularly in the second half of the season. PFF’s Pat Thorman suggested this week that the Patriots could use Atlanta’s worst loss of the season – a 24-15 defeat in Week 10 at Philadelphia – as a blueprint for mitigating the NFL’s most prolific offense. The Eagles’ game plan was distinct in the upset. They attacked the Falcons’ soft defense with a smash-mouth approach, teeing up 38 run plays for 208 rushing yards and two rushing scores while dominating time of possession 38 to 22 and simply keeping Atlanta’s offense off the field. Copying the Eagles’ near-flawless strategy will be easier said than done, of course, but I do believe New England has the necessary personnel and tactical-minded coaching to mimic it. Even at the tail end of an MVP-deserving year, I’m wary of making Super Bowl bets on Ryan’s box score with a strong level of confidence.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
The toughest matchup any offensive unit will face in Super Bowl 51 is Atlanta’s run game versus New England’s run defense, which ranked No. 4 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA this season and has limited enemy backs to a combined 153-506-1 (3.31 YPC) rushing line over its last nine games. Patriots interior cloggers Alan Branch (6’6/324), Malcom Brown (6’2/319), and Vincent Valentine (6’4/329) will likely be difficult for Atlanta’s lighter-weight zone-running offense to handle, and all of the Patriots’ defensive ends are quality run stoppers. New England is more vulnerable to backs in the passing game, where it yielded the NFL’s third most receptions (101) and receiving yards (804) to the position in 2016 before conceding ten catches to Texans backs and seven catches to DeAngelo Williams in the playoffs. The lone Pats linebacker with a positive pass-coverage grade from Pro Football Focus is MLB Dont’a Hightower, who is gutting out knee and shoulder injuries and only played 52% of New England’s defensive snaps against Pittsburgh. Asked after the AFC Championship Game how his body feels, Hightower ominously but understandably replied, “I feel like I’ve been playing football for over a year.”
An under bet on Devonta Freeman at 54.5 rushing yards (-130) looks like a possible value play, especially as Freeman has failed to clear that mark in 4-of-6 games since Week 13, exceptions coming against the far-softer fronts of San Francisco (139) and New Orleans (96). Freeman’s long-run prop is set at 15.5 rushing yards (-140), yet he’s failed to hit a 16-yard run in 5-of-7 games since Week 12. More reason to like the unders on Atlanta rushing props is growing concern with the health of difference-maker C Alex Mack (ankle/fibula), who was PFF’s No. 1-rated run-blocking center this season and may have to try to block the Patriots’ massive interior on one leg. Overs on Freeman at 35.5 receiving yards (-120) and 3.5 catches (-180) look like especially promising bets, although the reception prop got awfully pricey as this week progressed. Coleman is more volatile because he touches the ball less and is dependent on big plays. The Coleman prop I like best hits if he has a reception longer than 14.5 yards (-115), although it is certainly risky. Coleman gained over 14.5 yards on a catch in just 6-of-15 games (40%) this season.
In his always-excellent Super Bowl 51 preview, venerable Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders suggested the Falcons should abandon the run and the Patriots should run more. I agree wholeheartedly with both notions.
Bill Belichick has a reputation for bottling up his opposition’s top weapon, which my Fantasy Feast Podcast co-host Ross Tucker has repeatedly stated is more than a media-created narrative. Tucker spent eight months with the Patriots’ organization in 2005-2006. In meeting rooms during game-planning sessions, Belichick and players openly discuss forcing opponents to play “left handed” and out of their comfort zone.
There is one noteworthy narrative potentially in play here, however, as Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff disregarded Belichick’s 2011 recommendation to not trade a bushel of picks in Atlanta’s draft-day move up for Julio Jones. Belichick went so far as to rip Julio’s skill set coming out of Alabama, questioning Jones’ hands and what Belichick believed was overrated athleticism. Belichick getting beaten by Jones on the biggest possible stage would probably deal a colossal blow to Belichick’s elephantine ego and undoubtedly enhance the publicity of that story, which was revealed in Michael Holley’s War Room, a 2012 book detailing Belichick’s legacy.
There are data-driven reasons to consider the under on Julio’s 95.5 receiving-yards prop (-115), too. Antonio Brown (7-77-0; 7-106-0), DeAndre Hopkins (6-65-0; 4-56-0), Brandon Marshall (2-28-0; 6-67-1), Demaryius Thomas (7-91-0), Emmanuel Sanders (3-48-0), Terrelle Pryor (5-48-0), and A.J. Green (6-88-0) were the best receivers New England faced this season. Only Brown (Week 7) went over 95.5 yards in a game where the Pats allowed Landry Jones to pile up innocuous completions, and only Marshall (Week 12) scored against New England. Jones has played the Patriots just once in his career – in Week 4 of the 2013 season -- and did clear the 95.5-yard mark by rinsing FS Devin McCourty and then-CB Alfonzo Dennard for big plays en route to 108 scoreless yards on 13 targets. While Jones reached 13 targets in just 3-of-16 games (19%) this season, he has topped 95.5 yards in 9-of-16 and scored in 8-of-16. Although they seem to be only available at Vegas books, I’ve seen prop bets against Julio to score a Super Bowl touchdown set at EVEN, which is also in play. I think my favorite BetOnline prop involving Julio is a “Matchup” bet on Julian Edelman to beat Jones’ reception total by a half catch (-145).
A 60% slot receiver in Atlanta’s offense, Mohamed Sanu should primarily square off with Patriots slot CB Logan Ryan, who does a great job limiting yards with efficient tackling and close-quarters coverage but is beatable for short receptions, a concession Belichick is willing to make in exchange for preventing big plays. Ryan allowed ten catches in the AFC title game, with Steelers slot man Eli Rogers accounting for seven grabs. Ryan gave up seven catches in Week 17, when Dolphins slot man Jarvis Landry piled up nine. At the time a Bengal, Sanu went 5-70-1 on nine targets the last time he faced the Patriots, in Week 4 of the 2014 season. Set at +100, the over on Sanu’s 4.5-reception prop is at least mildly intriguing with New England highly likely to devote extra coverage outside against Julio. Sanu has reached four catches in three straight games, although he’s topped four receptions just once during that span and topped four in only 6-of-17 games (35%) this season. Still, the matchup dictates he could see an expanded role.
Austin Hooper is a scary investment because he has not caught more than two passes in a game since Week 9, but his snap rate rose from 52% in the Divisional Round to 61% in the NFC Championship Game, and Hooper ran more routes (26) than third receiver Taylor Gabriel (25) against the Packers. Hooper’s receptions prop is set at 1.5 (-110), and his receiving yards at a very-reasonable 19.5 (+135). Hooper has a plus matchup versus Patriots coverage-liability SS Pat Chung. Hooper’s usage isn’t reliable, but he has a chance to be a Super Bowl X-factor. … The Falcons will likely give Taylor Gabriel shot-play opportunities, but I expect him to match up frequently with Patriots top corner Malcolm Butler while Eric Rowe, Logan Ryan, and New England’s safeties deal with Julio and Sanu. The under on Gabriel at 3.5 receptions (-125) is worth a look. Gabriel has finished below 3.5 catches in four of his last five games. … The 2016 Falcons gave up a ton of tight end production and 7-78-1 to Jared Cook in the NFC title game. I just wish I had more confidence in Martellus Bennett’s health. He has battled a knee injury lately and is playing with a cracked bone in his ankle that will require offseason surgery. Bennett has drawn five targets or fewer in nine straight games. He has gone under his 36 ½ receiving-yards prop (-120) in five straight and has finished below his 3 ½-reception prop (+105) in 7-of-9 games since Week 10. It’s a situation I would probably avoid. … I wouldn’t rule out Malcolm Mitchell as an X-factor on New England’s side, but also wouldn’t entirely rule out Danny Amendola or Michael Floyd cutting into Mitchell’s role.
Thoughts on Super Bowl 51 Outcome
It is not a cop out to say this Super Bowl could go either way. The Falcons’ matchup-proof offense has stayed dominant despite facing one of the NFL’s toughest schedules of opposing defenses. The Patriots’ offense has kept humming despite the year-ending loss of Rob Gronkowski, and New England’s defense has compensated for its pass-rush shortage by playing fundamentally sound, tackling efficiently, and stamping out running games while limiting big plays. I expect this to be a close, high-scoring, and exciting Super Bowl. Albeit by a slim margin, I think the Patriots have more matchup and intangible advantages against a young Falcons team whose defense leans heavily on four rookies in the middle of the field, where Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and LeGarrette Blount should go to work. I’m picking New England to win. I would side with Atlanta if approaching the game with the point spread in mind.
Score Prediction: Patriots 35, Falcons 34